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    May 16, 2020

    Using Language to Drive Clarity in Thought in Communication

    "So we want to discuss how the SEs, AEs, and AR can be working with the Partner Team to optimize our To-/Through-/With- Marketing strategies, aligned to our BGs, regions, SMEs, and Corp Defined Objectives."

    This jumble of acronyms, lingo and jargon is what passes as communication by today’s standards. Communication is further complicated by remote workers, misaligned executives, and the ever-changing landscape that is the status quo for your average tech company. In order to reduce the number of NASTYs (Needless Acronyms Stifling Teams and You) and actually have a discussion with the appropriate context, you need a common taxonomy. For every taxonomy, there are two key components: a common definition set and means for exchanging ideas. Creating a clear taxonomy is a complicated process no matter the subject, due to multiple definitions, confusion about context and differences regarding what is most important. In a business environment, increased difficulty arises when discussing intricate business and economic concepts polluted with the noise of buzzwords and waylaid through the natural evolution of terms and processes. 

    A clear and precise taxonomy should be used as the basis for effective communications in and across organizations. Every taxonomy consists of four core concepts:

    1. Foundation: Set baseline understanding of the definition and purpose 
    2. Framing: Determine guiding principles for framing the key structure
    3. Fundamentals: Define your terms and how they are used
    4. Fit: Test the efficacy and accuracy of terms and principles

    Foundation

    Setting a foundation may seem like an simple process, but without a plan it can get messy quick. In short, get people to agree a taxonomy solves a specific problem and set the boundaries of the topic to be defined. The first step is to get a rough idea of what the finished product will look like, and while this seems daunting when looking at a blank sheet, it will always have some basics: Purpose and Definition. Purpose is driven purely by need - "What is the pain point this solves?" Definition should be easy from here - "What will this do to solve the pain point?" With these two elements, you have answered two of the most common questions you will hear moving forward "What is the value in this?" and "How will this make a difference?"

    Framing

    Now that you have a foundation, it is time to start framing your concepts, providing your idea a structure and methodology for expanding it. Your definition drove you to the "what," now it is time to flesh out "what it is not." This is done with Guiding Principles, which are generally done best in question form. The key concept in this is drawing a line between "Yes" and "Kinda." By asking these Yes/No questions I am not making a decision tree, where every outcome is defined. The only paths are:

    1. If all answers are a "Yes," you know definitively you have a relevant term
    2. If you get a "No," it does not need to be defined

    If you have a question that could be answered with “Both”/’Kinda”/”Maybe” then this is a bad guiding question.

    When developing your own Guiding Principles make sure they delineate four key areas:

    1. What is the goal of your taxonomy? Is your taxonomy defining a process, defining a lifecycle, creating a distinction among scenarios?
    2. Does your taxonomy exclude concepts? What is similar but not included?
    3. Has a term been defined by others? Is that definition lacking in precision or out of date?
    4. Is there segmentation within your taxonomy? Have those terms been clearly defined?

    With these two defined, we have covered the basics of building a working structure to start adding your fundamentals in and testing how they fit. 

    Using those concepts, we‘ll dive into the meat of creating your taxonomy, which is defining fundamentals and testing fit. 

    Fundamentals

    With your framing principles in place, you can start building out your fundamental terms and how they connect. This is best done with a whiteboard, some beer, and a decent amount of time. Pending beer, patience will be your saving grace. There are three steps in defining these terms:

    1. Identify terms that are used vaguely or inconsistently
    2. Show relationships across terms, and identify what makes them distinct
    3. Look for gaps to ensure your terms are comprehensive and exhaustive, without overlapping

    Here are some easy terms that have a broad set of definitions depending on which role you are in:

    • Program: Application on a computer or Legal agreement with partners?
    • Owner: The person that does the work or the person that make sure it gets done?
    • Solution: A group of products sold together or the answer to a question?

    An easy way to start fleshing these out is look at your definition and guiding principles, and clearly define any company or industry specific terms, buzzwords (Anything-as-a-Service), and remove all cases of DBA (Death By Acronym).

    When you are defining terms, here are three buckets each one should always have:

    1. Term name
    2. Definition - Be clear, concise and precise
    3. Relationship - How it relates but is distinct -If this is used in conjunction/commonly confused with another term (Discounts vs. Rebates)

    Now you need to look for gaps. This is a little like writing down the things you don't know, so you will need to phone a friend and test the fit.

    Fit

    This is the hardest part of the process, and that is showing the world your new taxonomy. You will want to get this into a digestible form, with a slide or section each for your Foundation, Framing and Fundamentals. Think about how you will describe this to someone who hasn't spent days arguing about it, and give them some runway to get up to speed. You will also want to identify the best to discuss with, starting small, typically your nearest peers.

    While you review through this, focus specifically on these 3 elements:

    • Accurate - Are the terms clearly defined? Do any terms have circular definitions?
    • Efficient -Do people understand the clarification readily? Are there words that can be removed?
    • Comprehensive - Is anything left implied or undefined?

    If you have tried fit testing before, you may have followed a predictable trend of:

    • The first few stakeholder meetings go well, general agreement with foundation and framing, minor changes to your fundamental terms
    • You now have 10 more terms than you started with and have doubled the number of stakeholders to review with
    • Your initial review timeline has stretched out another month, and you are slowly drafting a dictionary for future generations to complete

    Stopping this path requires you to answer two questions before you start:

    1. Who has the final sign-off that your terms are complete?
    2. Does your framing limit the scope of your taxonomy?

    By identifying a final decision maker, you now know who will say “enough is enough.” If YOU are that decision-maker, then question 2 is crucial. Using a Venn Diagram approach, outlining “Included in taxonomy” and “Excluded from taxonomy” find terms that lie in the overlap, and strengthen your framing questions until there are no terms remaining that are in that overlap.

    You will probably have some changes going through this, be prepared to discuss your thinking but avoid an argument. A discussion will lead to an outcome, and the argument leads to a victor. If you have been successful, you will have a team with a common understanding and language, with a clear understanding.

    Sharing your Taxonomy

    Now that you have completed this process, it is time to communicate your taxonomy out. Since this was not a magic trick, make sure to not hide the process. The document you send out should include every element, starting with your foundation (now a value proposition), your framing guidelines, the stakeholders reviewed with, and the key terms your fundamentals defined. With your communications should also be how this taxonomy will impact business processes and reporting, as a tool is only effective when it is used properly. 

    Trying to figure out how to align the taxonomy within your organization? Get in touch with us. We'd love to help.

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